Rebel Ideas

I’ve just read Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. It’s an excellent read – Matthew certainly knows how to take a single point and construct a readable chapter around it. The main argument, as the subtitle says, is to promote diversity – making sure that groups contain sufficient variety of background and thinking to achieve the best results.

The book has a good range of examples, from scientific innovation to mountaineering to national intelligence. The overall argument is very convincing. ‘Recombinant’ innovation, which draws different ideas and disciplines together, can be so much more powerful than incremental progress. Permitting the expression of dissent can be a crucial way of avoiding serious errors (Syed gives the example of a fatal Everest expedition where a junior team member’s misgivings were ignored). And recruiting people from different backgrounds greatly expands a team’s capacity.

I have two criticisms. The first is that Matthew avoids the thorny question of just how much diversity is functional. Generally the more diverse the team, the harder it will be to keep it together, so there are costs and risks involved. At some point, diversity becomes excessive and therefore dysfunctional. Guidance on how to recognise that point would be very useful.

The other is gender. The book includes several women, such as the scientist Jane Goodall and the counter-intelligence officer Yaya Fanusie. But I would have welcomed a more general discussion of the gender dimension of diversity, and how it relates to effective team-building.

That said, a book that will make your own thinking more diverse, and therefore powerful.

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